the black (?) presence in Independência ou Morte!

During much of the nineteenth century, one of the great national issues debated by the Brazilian intelligentsia was the place that Brazil’s black population should (or should not) occupy when eventually slavery, “the necessary evil,” came to an end. 1See: AZEVEDO, Celia Marinho. Onda Negra, Medo Branco: o medo no imaginário das elites, século XIX. São Paulo, Companhia das letras, 1987. They discussed how to conduct a discreet and elite-led “transition” – how to give up their rings but keep their fingers. They imagined a fortuitous post-slavery world in which these figures would pass from object to subject, from the status of property to citizen. A situation that placed the seigniorial class in check: after all, how to guarantee the autonomy of former slaves? How to keep them dependent on the new regime? This is a history of the longue durée, with more cleavages and points of inflection than the seigniorial class admitted, culminating in the abolition of slavery in 1888, the same year that Pedro Américo, then in Florence, completed Independence or Death!, a commission from the Imperial government. Why revisit the episode in this context?

Paintings are subject before object; they are born of a conjunction of ideas that come together in the visual form – the infamous intentions of the artist who negotiates with society (be it the commissioner, the critic or the general public), dialogues with tradition (as continuity, rupture, or rejection) but also the ideas exceeding what the artist consciously portrays. The questions asked of artistic works invariably concern the demands of their time. Chronos (Greek Χρόνος, time) relentlessly disavows narrow ritual arrangements; 2In pre-Socratic philosophy Chronos is the personification of time and immortality. During the Renaissance it became associated more frequently with Titan Cronos, the God of time par excellence. LIDDELL, Henry George & SCOTT, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon. Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ what before were seen as prosaic passages become essential, new topics arise, and what was previously indispensable fades away. Analyzing a work of art, therefore, involves more than recovering the motives or intentions of the person who takes up the brush (as in this case), but rather it requires we peer into the artist’s surrounding world.

Independência ou Morte! was painted in a very specific tradition: historical paintings. This genre finds its apex, most arguably, in Napoleonic France with Jacques Louis David. With the consolidation of art academies, this genre became “great art”: canvases were very large and encompassed portraiture, landscape, nude, still life, etc., all at the service of rendering an historical narrative. The scenarios could be fictional or mythical, they could present historical events, instruct the viewer about the formation of national states, revolutions, battles, etc. In Brazil, this practice changed course between the works of Pedro Américo and Victor Meirelles. Meirelles’s battle paintings, for example, strongly communicate with the present. 3In Europe during this same period, the moment was diverse, the practice so common in the previous century having been undermined by the winds of modern vanguards. See COLI, Jorge. “O sentido da Batalha do Avahí, de Pedro Américo.” In Projeto História no. 24, São Paulo, June 2002, pp. 113-127 This is the case, for example, of the Battle of Avaí (1879). In a sense, this connection was inescapable; however, the relationship between the painting and event – a battle which had occurred only two years earlier – seems much more immediate than in the case of Independence or Death! Let’s analyze this.

The painting of the Ipiranga Museum (Independence or Death!) presents intense movement. At the center are the protagonist, D. Pedro I, and a group of followers, located on a higher terrain. The painting demarcates a salutary event for patriotic Brazilian history, in which we become eyewitnesses of the exact moment when the nation’s independence was proclaimed. The monarch’s pose is heroic, as he soars his sword toward the heavens. He is proud and diplomatic in the same measure. He sits atop his steed – the only animal depicted at rest – with respect, openly proclaiming Brazil’s insubmission to the Portuguese Crown. His companions, more agitated, greet him with handkerchiefs and hats. The actions of this first group reverberate and enthuse the cavalry. Two rows of soldiers vigorously mimic the now Emperor’s gesture. One of them tries to avoid falling into the Ipiranga river, whose banks frame our field of vision. We are located somewhere in the river, with a privileged view of the events. On the left is a lean, slender figure: an astonished cowboy in tatters. He has no personality, his face conveniently shrouded by the shade of his hat. Above, another man, in visibly more expensive clothing, calmly watches the scene. He grips his hat in his hands, a sign of respect and attention. Again the positioning of his horse hints toward the emotional state of the figure: we can consider him a member of the seigniorial class, who at that time lived in turmoil with the government, precisely because of the way in which abolition was carried out – that is to say, without the payment of indemnity to slave owners in recompense for the loss of their property. In this way, the painting recalls, on the one hand, the importance of the army as an actor in national sovereignty, as well as the agreement elites made with each other, with the figure of D. Pedro I as an icon that would capitalize on the founding emergencies of the nascent country.

But what about black people? Where are they in the painting? After all, they made up a significant percentage of the population. How could it be possible to exclude them from this process? Silence, in certain situations, may be more telling than upon first thought. The black presence in the image is perfectly residual. There is not one black person in the military, nor among the closest figures watching the events unfold; we only see the emergence of a black figure as a passerby, located in the top left of the canvas, in the background, accompanying a donkey in the other direction. The character is completely oblivious to the situation, not even a spectator. A busy worker engaged in their trade, playing nothing more than a supporting role. How to explain this?

Most representations of black people in Brazilian art throughout the nineteenth century are the result of efforts undertaken by foreign painters. Their motivations were varied: there were those who dialogued with international abolitionism, such as Rugendas, while others sought to understand daily life and the tropical picturesque, such as Debret and Hildebrandt. A continuous presence in textbooks for generations, Debret and Rugendas are not only the best known to the general public, but they also helped to shape our imaginary of the slave period. Consider, for example, The Punishment of Slaves, one of several watercolors that Debret produced for his picturesque and historical Journey to Brazil (1834-1839). The black body is exposed throughout the image. The other captives watch apprehensively as the ritual fulfills its pedagogical function. The drama unfolds in three periods. A slave is brought to punishment. He struggles against his captor in vain, dragged by an agent of the state and by another slave, the former with his head bowed. His hands and feet are tied. In the center another slave is punished. Semi-nude, he is whipped vehemently. His gaze fixed blankly, his facial expression announcing a deep pain. A third slave, who has already been punished, writhes, having difficulty standing up. He is aided by another who is scared and attentive to the master’s reactions. A reminder: act under orders. Your body is an extension of the master’s desire.

Jean Baptiste Debret, The Punishment of Slaves (Journey to Brazil) (1834-1839)

We can note similarities between this scene and View of the Island of Itamaracá (1637), by Frans Post – probably the oldest painting in the Americas by a professional artist. In both situations black bodies are readily visible. The horizon stretches until out of sight; two thirds of the image is sky. The winding, mountainous relief of Itamaracá island gives rhythm to the landscape. In the foreground, four men take center stage. Two of them are white, exhibiting elegant robes, boots, shirts and fine pants, airy vests and hats. The first has his back to us. His corpulence indicates distinction. He gazes at the view with enthusiasm, suggested by his pointing in the direction of the horizon. The second ignores the painting’s main theme. His gaze and body position suggest that he oversees the work of the enslaved black men, as he watches them from atop his horse. These, in turn, sport ordinary clothing, valued for their economy. They bare their torsos, chiseled by the physical effort required of manual labor. The one on the right feeds his master’s horse. Bare feet clarify his enslaved condition. The figure to the left balances a bag atop his head with great effort and posture. For these figures, contemplation is not an option. In both cases, though distant in space and time, a close eye prevails over them, an effect symptomatic of this society. Rarely are there black characters in paintings by national artists.

Frans Post, View of the Island of Itamaracá (1637)

Two additional paintings that address abolition merit our attention. The first is by Miguel Navarro y Cañizares, a Spanish painter based in Salvador, who in 1888 painted Golden Law. In the painting, he rationalizes, through a triangular structure, the symbolic weight of each of the actors who earned their laurels for supposed involvement in the event. 4On this painter, see RUMMLER DA SILVA, Viviane. “Miguel Navarro y Cañizares e a Academia de Belas Artes da Bahia: relações históricas e obras”. REVISTA OHUN – Revista eletrônica do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Artes Visuais da Escola de Belas Artes da UFBA. Ano 2, nº 2, outubro 2005. Available at http://www.revistaohun.ufba.br/, accessed on June 13, 2013. Parliamentary and military, each group occupies one side of the canvas. In the center, raised by an altar, the redemptive princess holds up a cross, protected by divine figures. At her feet are the knees of three visibly poor women, two of whom are black. They go unnoticed by the other characters. The dramaticity of their gestures reveals that they are the only figures in the composition truly moved by the act (especially the child in the lap of one of the women, symbolizing the future). The painting is in conversation with Allegory of the Law of the Free Womb (1871) by the same artist. It repeats the idea of giving, of the prominent presence of the Church and State. Slaves are effusively grateful, situated as if inferior, confirmed by the indifference of the main actors to their existence. The festivity of the slaves is further given by the possibility of pleading their freedom, independent of their masters’ consent. 5CHALHOUB, Sidney. Machado de Assis, historiador. São Paulo, Companhia das letras, 2004.

Miguel Navarro y Cañizares, Golden Law (1888)
Miguel Navarro y Cañizares, Allegory of the Law of the Free Womb (1871)

Pedro Américo also produced a painting that addresses abolition, The Liberation of the Slaves (1889). The central focus of the image is once again the granting of freedom. A defeated demon, writhing on the ground, represents the death of slavery. Slaves give thanks to the heavens. Their backs are to us, and we are unable to perceive their individualities. They effusively give thanks and celebrate what is to come.

Libertação dos escravos (1889), Pedro Américo.
Pedro Américo, The Liberation of the Slaves (1889)

In this sense Independence or Death! is consistent. Slavery was present, though very discreetly. Slaves were represented as passive beings, oblivious to great political events, incapable of actions that could alter their miserable destinies, subaltern bodies seized and brought to work. If they were not seen as decisive actors in abolition, what would they have to say about the struggle for independence? The painting seeks to construct a mythical narrative about the constitution of Brazil as a country. These representations helped to formulate an idea that blacks were not subjects, had no relevance in shaping Brazilian society. This would explain the figure’s marginality – in addition to racism, which at this point forcefully invaded the political arena. They were, at best, inert spectators.

As is known, modernism would come to approach the black presence in the following decades: Tarsila do Amaral, Portinari and Di Cavalcanti, each in their own way tried to incorporate blacks into a greater narrative of art history, and firstly, of national history. The fact is that, in any case, in the inter-centuries it was already possible to perceive a generation of artists concerned with these issues, including Arthur Timótheo da Costa, Armando Viana and many others, who revised the narrative. Their portraits of black people, whether hardworking or “idle,” brought a visibility never before experienced; but more than that, they placed these characters into a greater narrative, which impacts that thing we insist upon calling reality.

O menino (1917), Arthur Timótheo da Costa.
Arthur Timótheo da Costa, The Boy (1917)
A negra (1923), Tarsila do Amaral.
Tarsila do Amaral, The Black Woman (1923)

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This text was originally published in the book where is pedro américo? (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2018) and revised in June 2021.

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  • 1
    See: AZEVEDO, Celia Marinho. Onda Negra, Medo Branco: o medo no imaginário das elites, século XIX. São Paulo, Companhia das letras, 1987.
  • 2
    In pre-Socratic philosophy Chronos is the personification of time and immortality. During the Renaissance it became associated more frequently with Titan Cronos, the God of time par excellence. LIDDELL, Henry George & SCOTT, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon. Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
  • 3
    In Europe during this same period, the moment was diverse, the practice so common in the previous century having been undermined by the winds of modern vanguards. See COLI, Jorge. “O sentido da Batalha do Avahí, de Pedro Américo.” In Projeto História no. 24, São Paulo, June 2002, pp. 113-127
  • 4
    On this painter, see RUMMLER DA SILVA, Viviane. “Miguel Navarro y Cañizares e a Academia de Belas Artes da Bahia: relações históricas e obras”. REVISTA OHUN – Revista eletrônica do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Artes Visuais da Escola de Belas Artes da UFBA. Ano 2, nº 2, outubro 2005. Available at http://www.revistaohun.ufba.br/, accessed on June 13, 2013.
  • 5
    CHALHOUB, Sidney. Machado de Assis, historiador. São Paulo, Companhia das letras, 2004.

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